10.20.2015

Interview with Barry Johnson: President & COO at Black Jewell Popcorn

Barry Johnson
Sarah Velasco: Can you tell us about yourself? How did you get started?
Barry Johnson: I work with a group that acquired Black Jewell Popcorn in April, 2013.  While we did not come from the food industry and this is our first venture into the space, we saw great value in the unique and compelling attributes of Black Jewell and had a belief that through a variety of focused initiatives, we could grow the brand.  My background specifically has been in leading numerous consumer product brands but in different industries.  Many of the fundamentals to developing and sustaining successful products in highly competitive markets are applicable to different industries.  The real challenge has been in developing a detailed understanding about the grocery and natural food channel retailers and then implementing successful “go to market” strategies to gain and grow our shelf presence and sales. Thankfully, we are having tremendous success in gaining more and more retail chains that now carry our popcorn.

Sarah Velasco: Can you tell our readers about Black Jewell?
Barry Johnson: Black Jewell Popcorn has been around for over 50 years.  It started as a local popcorn Company in SE Illinois selling predominantly to local food stores and farmer’s markets.  The basis for the establishment of the Company in 1963 was a proprietary, heirloom seed that is our cornerstone today.  This is the small black kernel, the Original Black Jewell seed.  In the 1980’s, the Company was sold to a married couple who expanded distribution for the Company beyond the Midwest to other regions.  They also expanded the product lines to include other specialty kernels including and a Crimson colored one and also added microwave products to the line-up.  Since the transition in 2013, we have gone through a complete re-branding of the Company, updated all of the product packaging and added additional items to the product line-up.  We also engaged very early into the process of gaining Non-GMO verification and were the first to offer microwave products in the market with this logo.  We have also undertaken several additional initiatives including an update to the Company website and more active social media efforts to more directly connect with our customers.  Through all of the evolution of the Company over the years, the basics of being family owned and operated have remained.  We also take great pride in our close relationships with the family farms that grow our specialty popcorns for us.  All of our popcorns are grown and harvested in the Midwest, predominantly in Indiana and Illinois where Black Jewell’s operations are located.

Sarah Velasco: Why is popcorn great to snack on? 
Barry Johnson: We like to say that our popcorn provides “Happy & Healthy Snacking”.  Virtually everyone loves popcorn and popcorn provides a very healthy and natural snacking option to many other snacks.  Black Jewell takes a very strong approach to ensuring our products are natural and healthy.  The popcorn is gluten free, cholesterol free and has no trans fats.  With our microwave popcorn, all of the ingredients are 100% natural (nothing artificial) and as mentioned, all of our popcorn and ingredients have been verified Non-GMO.  So we offer a very “clean” snacking product.


Sarah Velasco: What makes Black Jewell popcorn different from other popcorn on the market?
Barry Johnson: Black Jewell is the leading grower and producer of specialty, color kernel popcorns.  All of our colored popcorns pop up pure white with less hull than typical yellow and white popcorns.  We also have a unique and tasty flavor profile that can be described as a more “nutty” taste.  Additionally, the color kernel popcorns contain more protective antioxidants than other popcorns.

Sarah Velasco: What is/are the difference between the different types of Gourmet Popping Kernels?
Bary Johnson: Our gourmet varieties offer variations in the kernel size which then can lead to smaller or fewer hulls when popped.  In fact, our Original Black kernel variety is virtually hulless.  We even have some consumers who have digestive issues and are able to eat this variety of popcorn.  All of Black Jewell’s gourmet kernels are typically smaller than standard yellow and white varieties which are bred for size and expansion.  But with the size comes more hull and more of a “chewy” texture.  Black Jewell’s popcorns tend to be more crunchy in texture.  Additionally, the various color varieties have unique taste profiles and with all of our popcorns, the consumer will get more of a “nutty” flavor to the popcorn than with standard yellow and white popcorns.

Sarah Velasco: What are some of the most common misconceptions about popcorn?
Barry Johnson: Popcorn doesn’t always have the reputation for being a truly “healthy” snack when you consider movie theater buttered popcorns and caramel corns.  But when seasoned with natural & healthy ingredients, popcorn is one of the healthier snacking options available.  It really does come down to what you add to the popcorn.  That’s why we focus on natural & healthy ingredients for our microwave products.  For example, our sweetener for the Kettle flavor microwave we offer is stevia leaf extract which is natural and doesn’t add the sugars that others do.  One other misconception about microwave popcorn is that the microwave bags contain unhealthy chemicals.  The common question is regarding the use of PFOA’s.  But we can assure our customers that Black Jewell microwave popcorns do not contain these chemicals.
Sarah Velasco: Are there some popping tips you could give us?
Barry Johnson: We typically tell our consumers that because our kernels are small and light, if they are using an air-popper, they should find some way to cover the opening until the popcorn starts popping (or risk some kernels flying out of the popper).  We often suggest using something like an oven mitt.  But most of our consumers pop our loose kernels on the stovetop and there really are numerous ways that they do this so it becomes a personal preference.  We know many stay very healthy with the oil they use, sometimes using something like coconut oil.  We have lots of consumers who really enjoy the process and make it a family affair.  The nice thing with popping on the stovetop is that once the popcorn is popped, each family member can season the popcorn to their own liking whether that be with a little sea salt, some salt & pepper, some cheese, some butter or any variety of other creative things that create an enjoyable snack.

Sarah Velasco: Where can readers find Black Jewell products?
Barry Johnson: Black Jewell Popcorn is distributed all across the US and in many large grocery chains.  We are also available through Amazon and our online store.  If someone is looking for us locally and can’t find us, we suggest calling our office and we’ll be happy to try to find the nearest retailer for them.